It’s one of the most popular policies that no major party will support – and Labour could win the election by backing nationalisation, says Neil Clark
It’s general election night. Labour are on course for victory, with a small majority. The Labour leader is asked by the BBC interviewer if the size of the majority will hinder his party’s legislative programme.
“We shall carry out our programme — our manifesto,” the Labour leader replies. “We shall give priority of course to putting on the statute book all those things that we have said, like the public ownership of land…”
That exchange took place exactly 40 years ago after the election of October 10 1974. Public ownership was a topic that cropped up a lot in that election, but fast forward to 2014 and it’s a very different story.
The annual conferences of the four biggest British parties have come and gone, and while we’ve heard plenty about Europe, Isis, tax cuts, tax rates, mansion taxes and immigration, the issue of public ownership — except in relationship to the NHS and the privatisation of the British government’s stake in Eurostar— has hardly featured.
This is despite opinion polls showing that a sizeable majority of people would like to see the railways and other privatised utilities, such as water, renationalised.
We the people want to talk about public ownership and how we can end, once and for all, the great privatisation rip-off, which means we pay far more for basic services than we need to, but it seems our political elite would rather talk anything but.
The Conservative Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin told his party’s conference “Britain deserves a transport system that works” — implying that the current one doesn’t work. Nevertheless he thundered: “Only Ed Miliband could look at the success of our railways today and say, ‘you know what, all this growth, trains busier than any time since the 1920s, more punctual, safer…forget it … let’s go back to some version of state command.”
“Take East Coast trains,” he continued. “Our plan: a new private operator from next year running more trains to Leeds, faster services to Edinburgh, new routes, new trains, growth. His (Miliband’s ) plan: letting the RMT call the shots and leaving that route stuck in state hands.”
The Conservatives’ obsession with privatisation could be seen not only in McLoughlin’s speech but by the decision announced on Monday to sell off the remaining 40 per cent publicly owned stake in Eurostar.
The public thinks our railways, easily the most expensive in Europe, should be renationalised — the Tories think they aren’t privatised enough.
Which brings me to their coalition partners. The Lib Dems did vote in favour of a party policy paper which called for allowing public bodies to bid for rail franchises and for the ending of the role of the Competition and Markets Authority in health, but there was no commitment to any form of re-nationalisation of the railways or any of the utilities.
Not that we could really have expected one from a party which, while in government, has presided over the sale of the Royal Mail. Having flogged off the company for around £1.5 billion below its real value, it wasn’t too surprising that party leader Nick Clegg didn’t mention the words Royal Mail once in his speech, but instead gave us conceited waffle about his party being the “only party who says no matter who you are, no matter where you are from, we will do everything in our power to help you shine.”
At the Labour Party conference in Manchester one of the undoubted highlights was Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, declaring: “I am clearer about this than anything in my life — the market is not the answer to 21st-century health and care.” In a stirring speech, Burnham went on to say: “We will free the NHS from Cameron’s market and, yes, repeal his toxic Health and Social Care Act. We will ask hospitals to collaborate once again and reinstate the NHS as our preferred provider. The public NHS, protected with Labour. Not for sale. Not now, not ever.”
It was great to hear such an unequivocal commitment to a publicly owned NHS from Labour, but alas, on other public ownership issues the party’s line is still remarkably timid.
Shadow secretary of state for Transport Mary Creagh rightly attacked Britain’s rip-off bus services, noting that while services had been cut, fares were up by an inflation-busting 25 per cent since 2010, yet didn’t call for them to be brought back into public ownership.
n the railways, Creagh admitted that a “big change” was needed and reaffirmed that Labour would “allow a public-sector operator to be able to take on lines” but that public-sector operators would be competing to run francishes with existing train companies, showing that Labour remains committed to the flawed neoliberal franchising model.
On energy, shadow spokeswoman Caroline Flint reaffirmed the party’s commitment to a 20-month freeze on household energy bills but again, didn’t mention the one thing which would reduce bills in the long term — public ownership.
It was a similar story in relation to the water industry. Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle lambasted the profiteering of the privatised water companies, but only recommended “reform of the industry” and a “new deal” for consumers, and not the replacement of private companies with a publicly owned English Water.
Now on to Ukip. We all know the party’s line on the EU and immigration — and also its opposition to Blairite wars of “intervention” abroad, but its views on privatisation/public ownership are not so clear.
The party’s health spokeswoman Louise Bours did pledge at Ukip’s Doncaster conference to work with the Unite union in opposing the pro-privatisation Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership TTIP (a stance which led the party to be attacked by the Lib Dems’ Vince Cable), while Ukip leader Nigel Farage did criticise in a recent interview the outsourcing and privatisation of NHS services and PFI.
But the party officially hasn’t said much about railway renationalisation or renationalisation of the utilities.
Nevertheless, despite that omission, the meteoric rise of Ukip can be seen as good news for public ownership campaigners. And here’s why.
It’s clear that the 2015 general election is likely to be a close-run thing.
What last week’s two by-election results — in Clacton and Heywood and Middleton — showed was that Ukip could cause significant damage to the chances not only of the Conservatives but also to Labour.
To hold off the Ukip challenge in its heartlands, and indeed parties like the Greens and Respect, Labour clearly needs to up its game and adopt more populist economic policies.
Making a commitment for the whole-scale renationalisation of the railways and the formation of a publicly owned English Water body to replace the profiteering water companies would be two very popular policies which would help win back traditional Labour voters who have become disillusioned with the party and who may be considering voting Ukip.
In other words a commitment to renationalise could well make the difference between Labour forming a government next May or falling short.
The leading figures of Ukip may be ex-Tories, and the party’s first MP, Douglas Carswell, may be an uber-Thatcherite, but the party’s supporters are most certainly not neoliberals and are strongly in favour of public ownership.
A poll in November 2013 showed that 73 per cent of Ukip voters wanted to see the railways renationalised, while an even bigger proportion, 78 per cent, wanted to see the energy companies renationalised.
Support for public ownership among Ukip voters is actually stronger than support for it among Tory and Lib Dem voters.
That should tell Ed Miliband that one of the most effective things his party could do to counter the Ukip threat is to embrace public ownership.
Whether he does or does not will be highly significant. For it will tell us whether Labour really has moved away from Blairism, or is merely offering us a slightly more “people-friendly” version of neoliberalism than the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
Getting back to October 1974, the very fact that the public ownership of land was the first policy mentioned by prime minister Harold Wilson in his post-election interview tells us that those were more democratic times.
The hope is that the political changes currently occurring in Britain and the widespread disillusion with the neoliberal and neo-con Westminster elite can bring to an end an era in which genuine democracy is in retreat and put public ownership back to the top of the political agenda.
Neil Clark is director of the Campaign for Public Ownership. Next month — a look at the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens and other parties’ lines on public ownership.